The OF Blog: Thoughts regarding Scott Bakker's Neuropath

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Thoughts regarding Scott Bakker's Neuropath

This shall not be a typical review for me. Unlike virtually all others who have received review copies over the past few months, I have known at least some of the details of this story for almost four years now and instead of focusing directly on the story itself, I would rather concentrate on its genesis and some of its possible implications.

When I met Bakker at a Nashville booksigning in June 2004, he said to a small audience that consisted of some of his old grad school buddies from Vanderbilt and a couple of others (including myself) that he had recently begun writing a near-future thriller based on a dare from his then-fiancée Sharron, who preferred that genre over the epic fantasies that he enjoys reading/writing. But early on, from what I recall from a few email conversations and interviews that he did with me and with others, he decided to mix in elements of his Ph.D. dissertation and craft a tale that would be provocative, unsettling, and if the reader were willing to commit to the Argument that he presents in the book, something that might be harrowing for a year. Needless to say, all of this interested me, especially in regards to questions revolving around choice, free will, and the possible illusory natures of both. While we disagreed then (and now) on some of the particulars (I am much more optimistic about matters regarding both), Bakker's questions sparked quite a few thoughts that occupied my waking and sometimes sleeping hours.

Fast-forward to February 2006. Bakker had just completed a complete revision of this thriller, called Neuropath, and he asked me and Jay Tomio if we would like to read the draft while he and his agent would attempt to sell this story. He warned us beforehand that it was a "difficult" story and one that likely would not be appealing to the majority out there due to its visceral qualities and its disturbing questions. Undaunted, I agreed to read the draft.

The draft was everything he said and more. It is a very bleak novel, with its few lighter moments serving only to set up even more devastating revelations. And unlike most thrillers, there was no catharsis at the end. Instead, the ending is so chilling, so personal in a sense that I was sucked into imagining myself in the place of the protagonist, Thomas Bible. There was no redemption, no "saving moment." Instead, it closes with a realization that the traumas endured, the horrors realized, all of those were but the stripping away of protective layers; I felt exposed afterwards. Made for quite a downer for a couple of days, as even my dreams dealt with the implications of what was shown in that novel. Totally unlike 99% of the other novels that I've read over the course of almost 30 years of reading.

Bakker was correct in noting that this would be a tough sell, as it took well over a year to find publishers that would release the book. Talking about matters involving the manipulation of the mind (and therefore the body) does not make for a pleasant read, regardless of how well-written and plotted the novel might be. Considering that Neuropath utilizes some of the tropes of the thriller genre, perhaps it might be best to discuss how well it succeeds on that level.

The few thrillers that I've read tend to be short, sharp staccato bursts of dialogue and action that moves at a fast clip to a (somewhat) telegraphed conclusion. Neuropath on the other hand, while it nails the tense, frightening scenes that drive the early portion of the novel, might be odd and disjointed to thriller fans because there is so much exposition. Those who don't want to think while they're reading a plot-heavy novel probably will find Thomas Bible's reminisces about his friend-turned-FBI suspect Neil Cassidy to be rather long and distracting from the plot. For the first 200 pages of this 300 page novel, Bible's thoughts, his self-denials, his worries, his fears dominate the book, creating a sensation of a sputtering start perhaps for those who desire a head-on adrenaline rush.

However, the final third of the novel is packed full of surprising revelations, horrifying actions, and a twist ending that does serve to provide a definitive end to the action, if not to the implications that led up to that action. It is a suitable conclusion, but not necessarily the one that most readers would want, but it does flow quite nicely with the "Argument" between Bible and Cassidy that is threaded throughout the novel.

It is strange novel to review. It meets its purposes and is written well. It creates an emotional connection with the reader, but through appealing to the fallacy of reason than by any real attachment to the characters. There is nothing cathartic about its conclusion to offset its disturbing implications. It is not a story that will make someone feel better for having read it. But it is a tale that does make a strong connection and as such, if one engages in the "Argument," it might be a moving book, but if one fails to engage in that "Argument," the book and its premise will be utterly unappealing. Therefore, I can only recommend Neuropath, despite its merits and despite my personal appreciation of what Bakker has accomplished here, to those who are willing to engage their minds with what is transpiring in the text.

Publication Date: May 2008 (UK); June 2008 (Canada); unknown US release date

Publishers: Orion (UK); Penguin Canada (Canada)


ThRiNiDiR said...

enjoyed reading your thoughts on the book Larry. Would you draw any paralels between Akka and Thomas Bible (with all the internal dialogue and self-doubt going on?)

Anonymous said...

In point of fact it was only a tough sell in the USA. It went like hotcakes in every other market - the same pattern as The Prince of Nothing, actually.

Otherwise, let me get this right: this was one of the most engaging, troubling reads you've had in thirty-years, and you're recommending that people who don't like arguing with their books NOT read it?

You do realize you're actually agreeing with my wife! It was her argument that it was impossible to have it both ways, to write something cerebral and pulse-pounding, that spurred me to write the book in the first place. She totally ate crow after reading it - this from a woman who's far harder on my writing than you, Larry!

I guess the debate goes on.

Just so you know, though, this book is being pitched to booksellers as a technothriller, so your attempt to imaginatively project yourself into the space of its intended audience is somewhat skewed.


Lsrry said...

I was going to email you this link this morning, Scott, but I see you found it anyways!

Actually, I was seeing myself outside of the intended audience, which if you think about it in context of the story, is quite ironic ;)

And as for the reserved recommendation, those who like only the fluff will likely be frustrated because NP isn't fluff and thus will likely project that frustration outwards in a few forms - sort of like how those who subconsciously get the Argument embedded in Kellhus's character and are troubled by it will consciously think (in some cases, of course, since this is far from an universal) that he is a such a "monster" that "ruins" the story they've been reading. Expectations challenged and all that.

More later, perhaps? I have to do the early morning go to work ritual now.

Neth said...

it's interesting to read your thoughts on the book - I hope to start it while I'm on a business trip this week.

anyway, I have to say that in-spite of whatever truth there is to it, it does get a bit tiresome when you conistently tell readers that a book is essentially too complicted for them to enjoy it. I'll see shortly, but I get the impression that this book can be 'enjoyed' on multiple levels in spite of its desturbing ideas.

Anonymous said...

I was just checking to see what kind of mischief you were up to, Larry, and lo and behold!

I'm trying to put my finger on what it is I'm taking issue with... I'm not in the habit of arguing with reviews, simply because when you try as hard as I do to hit balls into the left field, some umpires are bound to cry foul.

I think it's because your division between kinds of readers and their potential reaction to Neuropath is too clean and neat. I actually think the book will resonate and alienate across the whole spectrum of readers, that a good portion of the people who you assume will like Neuropath, will in fact hate it, and that a good portion of the people who you say will hate it, will in fact like it.

I certainly hope so anyway. I'm trying to make a career out of finding new faultlines among readers - and hopefully leaving something of critical value in my wake. As soon as I start preaching to the choir for the choir, I'll be just another literary wanker, and it'll be time to hang up my spurs.

I certainly don't think this book is for everyone, though it would be nice if everyone picked a copy up to find out!


Lsrry said...

Ken, that is not my intent or what I said. I merely was referring to those who have been quite explicit in the past about their preference for non-challenging reads; NP is what it is and it won't appeal to all, so how can it be "tiresome" to admit that? I'd rather people try to challenge themselves more, so your comment is a bit...odd.


As for the "neatness," I think it's because I wrote this down in a single draft rather than editing/revising/clarifying/questioning as much as I would in other cases. As I said, it wasn't really a review as much as it was a snapshot of my reactions after completing the re-read. And yes, I do agree on the specific level, there will be individual readers in those overly broad categories who will go against expectations and like/dislike the novel, but I was thinking categorically there, so while there are some inherent flaws in that, there is still enough truth to it, I suspect. As for the preaching to the choir for the choir, I don't see that happening anytime soon. You still have so many parameters of that "Argument" left to explore before that could take place!

And I do agree that it'd be nice if people would explore NP first before deciding one way or the other, but perhaps I'm a bit cynical and can't help but to think some are so prejudiced one way or the other that commentaries such as mine will make little difference either way.

Neth said...

Therefore, I can only recommend Neuropath, despite its merits and despite my personal appreciation of what Bakker has accomplished here, to those who are willing to engage their minds with what is transpiring in the text.

Larry, I'm perfectly fine with saying that a book is not for everyone and this one seems to fit that bill even more than many, but the way you phrase things is IMO unnecessarily derogatory. I probably wouldn't have mentioned except that it's fairly common in your reviews or other discussions for seemingly derogatory comments to be made - I think it's a big reason why you often get such vehement reactions and that infamous 'elitist' tag.

I know that you often like to spice things up a bit to encourage discussion (and I've seen it work rather well), but perhaps your efforts to encourage people to challenge themselves would be more successfull if you were more constructive in your efforts more often.

Lsrry said...

Qué? That is but an assessment that is but the inverse of the "but I read only for 'escapism' and/or 'entertainment'!" comments that are made. As self-insulting/deprecating as those comments are, you're singling out mine?


Liane said...

Well that sounds thoroughly awful.

Lsrry said...


It's not "awful" by any stretch of the word; I think it was well-written and cogently argued. It just isn't likely going to appeal to those who read the more vapid thrillers as their main reading course.

Mark Newton said...

" stripping away of protective layers; I felt exposed afterwards."

Certainly makes me want to read the book! There are too few books that can achieve such reactions on the market...


Lsrry said...

I agree, which is why the book achieves Bakker's goals for it. It's just one of those books that isn't going to get many lukewarm reactions, which is a greater compliment to it than praising it unreservedly.

Nathan said...

Well, this sounds fantastic to me. I absolutely loved Bakker's Prince of Nothing books, in no small measure because they're so much more intellectually ambitious than what high fantasy generally delivers. I can't wait to get my hands on this one.

Lsrry said...

Nathan, I hope you enjoy it, because NP does pose quite a few provocative questions, even if I'm unsold on the mechanics of the story. I certainly didn't regret reading it, though.

Anonymous said...

This doesn't sound at all like the sort of thing I would usually pick up, more because I tend to gravitate toward noir and classic mystery novels when I get a jones for that sort of thing, rather than thrillers.

I am fascinated, though, by this Argument you've referenced. I want to know what it is and how it plays out. Further, I am at once intrigued and repelled by the idea of being stripped so bare by something I read. As reluctant as I am to let myself be that thoroughly discomfited by a piece of literature, I think I'm going to have to run the risk of it and pick up a copy of Neuropath. It's been a long time since I engaged that completely with a text.

Damn you, you're going to make me do it again.

Lsrry said...

Well Nadine, can't say I didn't warn/entice you! :P

Anonymous said...

Man, I can't wait to get this book. Nuts to your US publisher, Scott, for the late release. I ordered it from Amazon Canada, but they say they're out of copies for now. Hopefully I'll get it in time for my trip next week!

Anonymous said...

I think perhaps the review shouldn't say people who don't want to engage the arguement wont like it. Rather the arguement will likely start to challenge them, like it or not, if they read.

And I think Scott should keep in mind that while he's sneaking in deep questions into what is usually a rollercoaster genre (scary, yet predictable), reviewers who spot the question aren't going to automatically facilitate that sneaking in as well. Not their gamble, so to speak.

And I hope to find this book in an Australian book store soon!

Anonymous said...

Hi Larry... I loved the book (finished recently still in contemplation)... and think your review (and it's intent) makes more sense once a punter has read the book...

Nice one... Bakker is now on my list to be followed...

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